Eager, enthusiastic and curious – these are three words Katie Stoddart uses to describe herself. And when you listen to her on my podcast, they’re the exact traits that come across in her personality.
The award-winning coach and keynote speaker is a specialist in helping us focus. But she doesn’t just recommend productivity tools and leave it at that. Katie goes wayyy deeper to unpick why we can’t always concentrate.
Here’s a snapshot of the conversation we had on People&Digital, the podcast, where we discussed how it’s not necessarily digital distractions that are our biggest problem…
“It’s mostly because people don’t have a clear direction, so they lack purpose and meaning,” Katie explains.
She points out that when you have a vision driving you forwards, focusing is much easier. “If you have the goal to publish a book on a topic you’re super passionate about, then you’re a lot more likely to effectively manage your emotions, time and attention every day because you have that long-term focus,” she says.
Somewhat, but Katie says we often think the reason we struggle with focus is external when it’s actually internal. Notifications or emails – that’s one aspect – but, according to Katie, all those digital distractions are “a nice excuse” when it comes to explaining why we can’t concentrate.
“It’s more that people aren’t managing their emotions,” she says. “But also, because they’re not clear on what they really want to achieve that day, week or year. And without that clarity – without that direction and purpose – it’s very easy to say, ‘Oh, well. I’ll just check YouTube or go on my Instagram’.”
People think they just aren’t wired to focus, Katie says. They believe they don’t have the willpower or are naturally very distracted. They think they don’t know how to manage their distractions or are addicted to their phone.
“They may need to work on some of these things,” Katie says. “But I guarantee that each person is capable of focusing extensively. On a biological level, if you were suddenly in the jungle being chased by a lion, you’d need to focus. It’s just that we acquire bad habits. But we can change these things. It’s not like there’s a flaw in your DNA that means you can’t adapt!”
“Say you’ve decided to write an article,” Katie says. “You open up your computer and either you’ll start writing or you’ll think ‘let me quickly check my email’. Or, ‘I need to message my friend about this evening, first I’ll do that.’”
Here, we have what Nir Eyal talks about in his book Indistractable, says Katie. The ‘traction’ is the task at hand, the article, and you’re going away from it. You’re not heading where you placed your intention.
“People often underestimate how much this is linked to emotion,” Katie says.
At that moment, she continues, there was an emotion – whether it was impatience to talk with a friend, boredom of doing the task, fear that you won’t do a good job. There’s inner resistance, but your mind doesn’t tell you the whole story. It just skips to the part where it decides you need to message your friend.
“If you acquire the habit to do this all the time, you might get to that article, start writing and get distracted again,” Katie says. “A lot of people work like this all day, which is why they’re counterproductive and feel burned out and overwhelmed.”
What can really help is to pause and think, ‘what’s this impulse really about?’, Katie suggests. Analyse the emotion behind it.
“This is where meditation is so useful because you start to notice your own thoughts,” says Katie. “You’ll realise ‘I’m doing this right now because I want a bit of a dopamine boost’. Or, ‘I’m reluctant to do this task’. Once you start to admit it to yourself, then you can work on it instead of pretending it’s not a form of resistance.”
Katie suggests that you try to figure out why you’re resisting the task. Then you can focus more easily because you’ve looked at what was inside and acknowledged the fear, reluctance or boredom.
Multitasking, says Katie. It’s a form of constant distraction. It means you’re not ever really in deep work or fully focused – you’re just switching back and forth between tasks on a shallow level.
“It’s a very pernicious activity because you get the feeling that you’re more productive, as you’re doing three things at the same time,” Katie says. “But of course it’s less productive because you don’t go as in-depth, you make more mistakes and it takes up your attentional space.”
According to Katie, we can only ever focus deeply on one thing. Two things are somewhat possible – for example, you can talk and fold laundry or walk and listen to a podcast. But you can’t have an in-depth conversation and check your emails consecutively because they go through the same channel of communication, which is language.
If you want to do deep work, Katie says it’s a matter of starting with 10 minutes on one activity, then ramping up to 15, then 20, then 30 to get hooked on that feeling of flow. “Because, of course, to fully be in flow, you have to be focused,” she says.
Once you get used to that hour of full immersion in one activity, it’s so satisfying that you’ll realise multitasking is draining, stressful and brings anxiety. You’ll gradually start to revert to ‘single tasking’.
“Start by monitoring both your focus and the emotions around it,” says Katie. “The best place for any change of thought is self-awareness. When are you getting distracted? Is it when you’re really tired? Maybe this is an indication you need to work on your sleep. Is it first thing in the morning? OK, there may be an exercise routine, a cold shower, a walk you could do – something that will boost you in the morning.”
“So often when listening to podcasts, coaches, mentors or public speakers, we think they’ve got it all figured out,” Katie says “But no: first of all, they mess this up, and second of all, they have habits in place that are beneficial to their focus or wellbeing.”
We just need to acquire those habits, Katie explains.
“When you’re working on your focus, an essential part is self-compassion. You’ll screw up, because we all screw up!”
According to Katie, you can aspire to be different and work towards that, but you also need to be fine with the fact that if you haven’t changed by tomorrow, or even a year, it’s still OK.
“That’s insanely difficult. I struggle with it every day, mostly because of the drive to be at the next stage,” Katie says. “But you need to come back to yourself and be grateful for where you are now. For what you’ve achieved. For your current status. It’s about having balance. That helps with being disciplined because then you’re happy with who you are and you don’t have all of this in a dialogue that’s very negative and beats you down. Because, ultimately, that doesn’t help you to move forward.”
Don’t rely on productivity tools too much, says Katie. You still need some willpower to use these.
“Tools can help. But something I could have benefited from knowing sooner was how everything is internal. There’s a great book called the Inside Out Revolution and the idea is that everything in our external world comes from our thoughts, our perceptions,” Katie explains. “So, whether you see yourself as a success or a failure, focused or not focused, it all comes down to the internal aspect. The emotional management, the identity perspective, the perceptions we have – all of this contributes to focus.”
Voila! Katie’s rundown of why we can’t focus (and what we should do about it). For more on this fascinating topic, check out our podcast episode.
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